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Contesting the Racist Public Sphere: “New Africa” and the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union versus the State in South Africa, 1918-1938

Date Released: Wed, 1 March 2017 16:15 +0200

Henry Mitchell delivered a seminar entitled Contesting the Racist Public Sphere: “New Africa” and the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union versus the State in South Africa, 1918-1938on 1 March 2017 as part of the Labour Studies Seminar Series. The series is jointly co-ordinated by the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) and the Departments of Sociology, History, and Economics and Economic History.

Henry Mitchell is based at the University of Edinburgh, working on an ESRC-funded PhD provisionally entitled "Clements Kadalie: The Uncrowned King of the Black Masses." In 2015 he was a graduate attaché at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and previous research has looked at the social history of Malawians across Southern Africa over the course of the 20th century. Forthcoming articles are “Malawian Intellectuals, Christianity and the Millennium in 1920s Johannesburg” (South African Historical Journal), and “’Patience and Perseverance Overcome Mountains': The Prudent Struggles of Malawians Migrating Independently to Urban South Africa, 1913-1961” (Journal of Southern African Studies).

Presentation Summary

This paper examines how, from the 1910s into the 1930s, an assertive, radical "New African" culture countered the development of white South African nationalism. Rejecting the politics of conciliatory deputations to government, as well as violent rebellion, black activists and intellectuals associated with the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU), the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and radical ANC branches constructed a transnational black counterculture that stretched across Southern Africa via networks of print, platform speakers and letters. Through court cases, sensational journalism and meetings of thousands in Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, the ICU criticised colonial rule and imperial capitalism by developing an assertive identity - positioning its members as Christian, working-class (and even often British) women and men, who were proudly black as well as morally right. The state reacted with repression and surveillance, developing an unmatched "ignoble archive" of files cataloguing the biographies of over 600 so-called "native agitators" from across Southern and Central Africa, and the larger Black Atlantic.

Source:Henry Mitchell